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HotHardware's 2013 Back To School Shopping Guide
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Date: Aug 27, 2013
Section:Gadgets
Author: Ray Willington
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Introduction

It's that time again. The time of year when students and parents frantically hit e-tailers that offer fast shipping in order to get that all-important back-to-school technology into a dorm room or backpack before classes begins.

It's back-to-school season, and whether you've started classes recently or are awaiting (dreading?) that first 8AM lecture, there may be a few bits of techno-shopping that need to be taken care of before you can be on your way to that straight-A report card.


Credit: Google

Whether you're about to begin the Fall semester of college or your senior year in high school (or something else entirely), you'll probably need the right hardware to get you through. In the pages to come, we'll be taking a look at today's latest and greatest when it comes to systems, hardware and peripherals that could prove useful for any dutiful student. Handling 21 hours of classes while still maintaining some sort of social life (which can mean posting daily on Twitter or Facebook) is hard work, and it's even harder if you're still relying on that old Pentium-based notebook and a Moto RAZR.

Here we will look at small form factor or all-in-one desktops (meant to fit nicely in dorm rooms and transport easily for those heading off to out-of-state schools), notebooks, tablets, and of course, smartphones. Ready to get your school year started off right? Let's go...

2013 Back To School Shopping Guide Table of Contents:
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Smartphones
HTC One
When you pick up the HTC One, you instantly get the sense that it's a high-end phone with plenty to offer. The One’s outer shell is aesthetically pleasing and gives the phone a high-end look. It’s also solid thanks to its full-metal unibody design. This design adds a bit of weight to the phone, but it’s a tradeoff we suspect many users will tolerate.


A quick glance at the specifications of the HTC One, reveals that this phone was meant to compete with the other super phones available today—it features a 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor along with 2GB of RAM and Android 4.1.2. Depending on your carrier and budget, you can pick up a One with either 32GB or 64GB of internal storage at prices ranging from a couple of hundred bucks on-contract, to about $600 for an unlocked model. Unfortunately, HTC doesn’t offer a microSD card slot, so make sure you’re committed to whichever option you choose. The One’s 4.7-inch full HD 1080p screen is crisp and clear and supports wide viewing angles.

In addition to offering all of the high-end hardware specifications you’d expect from a super phone, HTC includes a number of software features with the One that help set this device apart. We appreciate the number of customization options that come with BlinkFeed and HTC Sense TV is a cool addition that gives the phone additional utility as well. You can read our full review of the HTC One right here.




Samsung Galaxy S4
It made our list last year in its third iteration, and it's here again in the form of the Samsung Galaxy S 4. Overall, the Galaxy S 4 is the fastest smartphone we have tested to date. The Snapdragon 600 SoC at the heart of the Galaxy S 4 put up the best scores we have seen in the majority of our benchmark tests and during real-world use, the phone was fluid and snappy.

In the end, the Galaxy S 4 is easily Samsung’s best smartphone to date. Not only does it offer better performance and many new features over the previous generation, but Samsung has improved the user experience as well. If you’re in the market for a new smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 deserves serious consideration, regardless of whether or not you're an Android or iOS user currently. Prices will vary from about $200 - $625 depending on the model and whether or not you buy it on-contract.  You can read our full review of the Samsung Galaxy S 4 here.



Nokia Lumia 1020
If you're willing to deal with the current limitations of the Windows Phone marketplace--which is constantly improving--you'll probably enjoy working and playing with this smartphone. The Nokia Lumia 1020's screen is beautiful, call quality is excellent, AT&T's LTE network is formidable (with a full build-out expected by the middle of next year), and the 1020's camera is best in class, hands-down and by a wide margin. If you value quality photography over pretty much everything else, there's really no other smartphone to consider.


Nokia is attempting to create a "best of both worlds" scenario with the Lumia 1020's phone + camera configuration, and if it matches your priorities, it offers a unique feature set unavailable elsewhere, at a price of about $249 (on-contact)--or more for an unlocked model. Our full review of the Nokia Lumia 1020 is available here, and if you want to see what happens when you strap a 1020 with all of its 41 megapixel goodness to an AR-Drone quad-copter, check this out.
 
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Tablets

Nexus 7 (2013)
The 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro with Adreno 320 graphics gives the 2013 Nexus 7 a serious boost in power over last year's model, and on several occasions, we saw the new model post benchmark scores twice as high as its predecessor. Gamers in particular stand to benefit from the upgraded SoC, which was able to pull 41 frames per second in GLBenchmark's Egypt Off Screen test.

Nexus 7 Stock

Everything about the new model Nexus 7 for 2013, which is priced starting at $229, is improved from the original. Granted, we didn't find the 2012 model to be heavy or chunky, but next to the 2013 release, it almost feels that way. The new Nexus 7 is slimmer, lighter, and a whole lot faster, the last of which is reason alone to upgrade if you like to stay on the cutting edge or are specifically interested in playing games.  Not to mention, the new Nexus 7's fully HD display is drop-dead gorgeous. If you need more convincing, our full review is available here.


ASUS MeMO Pad Smart 10
The most impressive thing about the ASUS MeMO Pad Smart 10 is that its street price is around $250, yet it offers a 10.1-inch IPS display, Tegra 3 processor, and a thin and light design. It even looks like a premium tablet, plastic back notwithstanding. You don't get to that price point on a 10.1-inch slate without making some sacrifices, and the biggest one is screen resolution, which checks in at just 1280x800.

Considering the price, the MeMO Tab Smart 10 is a good buy for a first-time tablet owner, as a gift, or if you just prefer a larger size screen regardless of resolution. You can check out our full review right here.


Apple iPad (4th-generation)
It has become a staple in the tablet recommendation category, but for good reason. Apple's iPad is most definitely tried and true at this stage, with a massive app ecosystem, a potent processor, tons of developer support, a wealth of accessories to choose from, etc. Plus, with iOS 7 just around the corner, you'll be able to squeeze even more out of an iPad that you buy today--prices starting at $499.

iPad 4

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Small Form Factor Desktops
Alienware X51 R2

Intel's Haswell architecture has landed, and Dell was quick to abduct the new platform to drive its higher end Alienware X51 R2 configurations, such as the one we reviewed here. Haswell's a great fit for the X51 R2, providing a big performance boost over last year's edition without negatively affecting the system's power footprint, noise, or physical size. On that last point, the X51 R2 continues to be a marvel in case design. Dell's Alienware team hit a home run with this small form factor (SFF) chassis, which is small enough to take residence in a living room setting, yet capable of housing components that can push pixels around like a traditional gaming desktop; not to mention the ability to upgrade a few components down the road possibly, if you so choose.


Another thing we like about the X51 R2 is its aggressive looks, though beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For those who don't find the system attractive, the saving grace for Dell is that it's a compact system that can easily be tucked out of sight. Alternately, you can draw attention to the system by playing around with the customizable LED lighting. Have a look at our full review here and there are a range of options price-wise, starting well under $1K.



iBuypower Revolt SFF

When we first got a look at the Revolt at CES, it was clear that the iBuypower folks were excited about it. They had a certain buzz around them that was undeniable, and now we see why; this thing is an absolute beast of a performer. Further, with its black front panel and slim profile, you could slot the Revolt into your home theater setup just as easily as you might tote it to a LAN party, and there are plenty of ports for adding peripherals as well as a handy SD card slot right on the front of the machine.


Although we’re not particularly enthused about the plastic chassis nor the inconveniently-layered interior that’s wholly unpleasant to work on, there’s really nothing more you can say against the iBuypower Revolt. It’s a beautiful-looking machine that appears to have more common DNA with an Xbox than your typical gaming PC. And for as inconvenient as it may be to tinker with the system, iBuypower’s lab folks should be lauded for fitting in as many excellent components as they did--including the liquid cooling system and its 140mm radiator.  Our full review is here.  Get it at Amazon for as little as $599.



Maingear Potenza SS

Just because you have a couple grand to spare on a gaming PC doesn't mean you want a machine with a size that's as large as your budget. Maingear's Potenza is pricey as configured, no doubt, but it's also stout and muscular, able to play games on high resolution displays while sitting tucked underneath your desk, in the corner of your home theater, or anywhere else you choose to stick a system that's barely larger than a bookshelf speaker.


Maingear's system is also unique in how it handles airflow. Like the company's F131 system, the Potenza turns the typical desktop form factor on its head and utilizes vertical space to great success. The power supply situated near the top of the case, expels hot air up and directly out of the case before it has a chance to toast the motherboard or CPU, and the same is true of the GeForce GTX 670 graphics card, which is mounted vertically. It's precisely this design that allows Maingear to pack so much performance into a small system, and then overclock it. You can read our full review here and find various configs at MainGear's site or we found one here for $1399 though it's not a SuperStock version like we tested.
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All-in-One PCs
HP Z1 27-inch AIO
The HP Z1 Workstation successfully juggles several balls. It provides solid performance for the price, offering serious power for well under $3,000. The system also scores well when it comes to access – in fact, it’s easier to get to the Z1’s internals than it is to access the guts of many ordinary desktops. You won’t need a flashlight to find your way around this system’s interior either; once that lid goes up, it’s wide open. The Z1 also has a polished, professional look, even from behind, so it's going to look nice on the desktop as well.


Given the Z1’s performance and accessibility, we recommend it to anyone looking for solid workstation in an space conscious environment or where aesthetics matter. There are other configuration options – if you don’t need quite as much power as our review unit provided, you can reduce that price tag significantly by choosing less-expensive parts. Our full review is here.



Dell XPS 18 Portable All-In-One
Compared to most other AIO rigs we've reviewed, the XPS 18 had enough vigor to not only keep up in most instances, but surpass some of last year's models. In PCMark 7, for example, the XPS 18 scored 4,318, nearly 2,000 points above the Asus ET2410, Lenovo IdeaCentre A720, and HP TouchSmart 520. The only system it trailed was Dell's burly XPS One 27. Similar situations played out in other tests, though the lack of a dedicated solid state drive and discrete graphics prevented the XPS 18 tearing through GPU and storage intensive benchmarks.


What's neat about the XPS 18 is that you can pick up the display and take it with you to the living room, bedroom, or even the bathroom if you've run out of shampoo bottles to read. Unfortunately, it's too big and heavy (around 5 pounds) to serve as a legitimate tablet replacement, and you'd look awfully silly lugging this sucker on the bus. It's also an expensive piece of equipment at $999 currently, and since it's somewhat unwieldy because of its size, there's a greater risk of dropping it than there is with a Nexus 7 or something of that nature. Our full review can be found here.



Dell XPS 27 Touch All-in-One
Hands down, the Dell XPS 27 Touch Touch is the most powerful all-in-one we’ve tested to date. It annihilated every other machine in our reference database in every test, including Dell's own last-generation model, the original XPS One 27. Some scores approached those of solid gaming rigs we’ve had in the lab previously, thanks to the system's fast processor and discrete NVIDIA graphics.


For such performance, as well as the attractive form factor and all that it offers, the XPS 27 Touch's as-configured price tag of $1699 (or less) is appealing, to boot. If you’re looking for a low-power AIO you can find cheaper options, but the Dell XPS 27 Touch is as close to a true “all-in-one” as you’ll get at this point in time  This new Dell AIO offers users--even gamers, up to a point--all of the amenities you’d want in a PC, from robust components to a nice array of ports and multimedia capabilities. The XPS 27 Touch is one of the best, no-compromise offerings we've ever seen in this class of products. Our full review can be found here.
 
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Laptops
13-inch Haswell MacBok Air
Overall, the new for 2013 Apple MacBook Air offered better performance versus last year's model, especially when it came to graphics and storage subsystem throughput.  Apple's super-thin notebook also placed near the top of its class in terms of performance versus a number of competitive Ultrabooks currently in the market, especially when it came to boot-up times, handling multimedia, graphics performance and battery life.


The machine we tested is priced a solid $100 less than last year's 13-inch model, currently at $1099 ($1044.99 for Amazon Prime subscribers).  This still puts the MacBook Air 13 in the upper echelon of premium ultralight notebooks, cost-wise, but Apple's offering is otherwise competitively priced when you consider offerings from Lenovo, Dell and others.  Sure, with a native resolution of 1440X900, the MacBook Air still technically doesn't have a full HD display, never mind Apple's high-end Retina panel, but in a 13-inch machine 1440X900 still cuts the mustard just fine for most folks. We like the new Intel Haswell-powered MacBook Air 13, with its PCI Express SSD serving up data at over 700MB/sec and its almost unbelievably-good battery life. Our full review is here.



Lenovo ThinkPad Helix
The idea of combining a Windows 8 tablet with a keyboard dock to create an ultrabook isn’t completely new, but we feel Lenovo did a better job at implementing this concept with the ThinkPad Helix. We also appreciate the fact that you can turn the tablet around and still attach it to the keyboard dock to use in stand mode or tablet plus mode for additional battery life.


Docking and removing the ThinkPad Helix is easy, especially since Lenovo incorporated two docking posts to help you line up the system. While Windows 8 is designed for touch, we also like that Lenovo incorporated a digitizer and pen for additional functionality and hope to see more applications that let you take advantage of the precision a pen can offer in the future. Lenovo’s ThinkPad line has a professional look that is sturdy, simple and clean yet still very attractive. The ThinkPad Helix utilizes this same styling while also providing additional flexibility that you won’t get with a traditional ThinkPad notebook. Our full review is right here. This machine is a touch pricey though at $1500 - $1700, depending on config.



Acer S7 Ultrabook (2nd-gen)
The second generation of Acer's lightweight S7 Ultrabook has landed in the U.S. and is now available to purchase. Acer's pitching the revitalized S7 Ultrabook as being the perfect companion for college students heading into the back-to-school shopping season, as well as any road warrior who needs a system that's not just thin and light, but also powerful with all-day battery life.

Acer Aspire S7

Acer made some key improvements to its S7-392 model, starting with the fact that it now ships with Haswell inside. According to Acer, battery life is improved by 33 percent, and a quieter fan with second generation "Twin Air Cooling" technology keeps the system chilly without raising a ruckus.  The 13-inch S7 is currently priced at $1599 and it's worth every penny in our opinion, with its gorgeous 1920x1080 full HD display.



Alienware ALW 18 gaming notebook
If pressed, we’re not sure we’d change much of anything on this gaming beast. It would be nice if the optical drive could burn Blu-rays (though that's a niche need for sure), and the front edge where your wrist rests while you use the machine could be a little more comfortable. Other than that, there’s really not much else you could ask for in a gaming notebook.


The processor is top of the line, and there are two high-end GPUs inside. 32GB of RAM is more than enough. The display is huge and beautiful. Dell even struck an excellent balance of storage and performance by implementing a spacious 512GB mSATA SSD and a large 750GB SATA drive (7200 RPM). It’s true that other models have RAID configured SSD arrays, which can offer a substantial performance boost on the storage side, but for an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink gaming notebook, you want to have plenty of storage in addition to performance. (We imagine some folks would prefer the extra SSD performance, but at this point it’s a matter of personal preference more than anything.)

The $4,499 price tag (as configured for our testing) is dizzying, but if you’re looking for a solid gaming machine at a better price, there are other Dell Alienware ALW 18 configurations (as well as good options from other manufacturers) that you can value shop for. The Alienware 18 is the one that you buy when money is no object and you refuse to accept anything less than everything. Our full review can be found here.
 


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